Why "It's Just Fiction!" Isn't A Magic Defense

Many times, people use "it's just fiction!" as if it's a trump card to play against any and all criticisms against something considered offensive or harmful. But the evidence shows that works can and do impact the real world, and sometimes in very harmful ways. Typically, problems come in when the following factors are present:
  1. The subject matter is something that exists in the real world, or is something that people believe is actually going on.
  2. Most of the audience isn't familiar enough with the reality or isn't educated enough understand that what they are seeing is not accurate.
Let's take a look at three examples of how this kind of thing has affected public perception and has gotten people hurt:

101 Dalmations (1996): After the live action 101 Dalmations film came out in 1996, a sudden craze of dalmatian adoption followed. Aside from puppy mills making a hefty chunk of money as a result, dalmatians actually make lousy pets for city-dwellers - they're extremely energetic and high-strung.

The tragic result was that many dalmatians ended up in homes that were completely wrong for them, and many people ended up leaving their pets at animal shelters - or worse, abandoning them.

"Dalmatians were outnumbering every other breed brought in that year," said Rose Channer, vice president of outreach for the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) in Los Angeles, California. "When people turn in an animal, we ask them why. And people told us, 'This dog didn't act like Pongo in the movie.' It was unbelievable." - A Dalmatian pup under the Christmas tree? Think again, say animal-protection groups.

What's even more tragic is that this wasn't just limited to 101 Dalmatians. It happens almost every time a film portrays pets as main characters.

Stagecoach (1939): Before Stagecoach, European-Americans had sort of positive views of the native peoples. Not the greatest, but not the worst, either. But after this film, which portrayed natives as bloodthirsty and ruthless, all that changed - bloodthirsty savages became standard fare as far as Native American characters went, and as a result white peoples' views of them began to shift accordingly. All of this fed into the further maltreatment and disenfranchisement of the Native American peoples. (See the documentary Reel Injun for more information.)

"Stage Coach" set the standard for Indians on film. They were seen mostly as a natural obstacle to the US colonization of the American continent. They existed as a way of proving the heroism of the film's hero who overcomes a fierce opponent to claim the land of his destiny. - The Interpretation of Native Americans in Hollywood Films

Rosemary's Baby (1968): Based on a book by Ira Levin, this film is about a woman who was impregnated with the spawn of Satan with the help of her not-so-friendly neighborhood Satanists. This film helped spark fears that real human-sacrificing, antichrist-breeding, youth-corrupting Satanists were lurking everywhere.

Fueled in part by unscrupulous authors who realized they could get a quick ride to fame and fortune by posing as ex-Satanists-turned-Christians, a real witch-hunt took place during the 1970's to the 1990's that resulted in many innocent people tried for alleged Satanic ritual abuse. (A time when, you'd think, we should have known better.) Even though no real evidence could ever be found, innocent people were convicted for life, or in the case of Damien Echols, to death. (Damien Echols has since been released, but not after spending almost two decades in prison fighting for his life.) Even when there was no conviction, there was often irreparable damage: quacks practicing highly questionable repressed memory "therapies" left people convinced that loved ones had ritually abused them, tearing families apart for years, or even forever.

For more information on this witch-hunt (known as the Satanic Panic), Swallowing the Camel is an excellent resource.

So basically, when it comes to a story that presents something that isn't well-understood by the public in an unrealistic light and/or does nothing to make it clear that it does not reflect reality, or is used in a way that builds up unrealistic expectations about it, "it's just fiction" does not apply as a defense. When we see a movie or TV show episode about a Christian who hurts people through extremism, it doesn't really affect public perception of Christians as a whole because most people already understand that most Christians aren't like that. When it comes to something about a member of a poorly-understood religion doing the same thing, it's a whole other kettle of fish because many people won't have experience with the real thing to know the difference.

So if you're writing about anything your target audience might not understand very well for one reason or another, handle it with care and caution because you might be building up peoples' first impressions.

See also:

Representation: Why It Matters, & How To Do It Well
A Few Things Writers Need To Know About Sexuality & Gender Expression

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